Internet Pioneers

In Memoriam Peter T. Kirstein: 1933-2020

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By Lawrence M. Fisher
January 8, 2020

Kirstein often was recognized as the 'father of the European Internet.'
British computer scientist Peter T. Kirstein, whose advocacy and technical contributions to computer networking helped establish and expand the Internet in Europe and other parts of the world, passed away this morning in his U.K. home at the age of 86. Credit: edubilla.com

Peter T. Kirstein, a British computer scientist whose advocacy and technical contributions to computer networking helped establish and expand the Internet in Europe and other parts of the world, passed away this morning in his U.K. home at the age of 86.

In 2014, on the occasion of Kirstein being awarded the Marconi Prize, Vint Cerf, co-inventor (with Kirstein and Robert Kahn) of the Internet Protocol Suite (TCP/IP), said about Kirstein, “While he may not be as well known here in the U.S., Peter is often recognized as the ‘father of the European Internet.’ But that phrase understates his contributions in the field of computer networking and in the area of protocols or systems for specific purposes.”

Born in Berlin, Germany in 1933, Kirstein and his family moved to the U.K. in 1937. He attended Gonville and Caius College of the University of Cambridge, where he received a B.A. in mathematics and electrical engineering. He went on to earn M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford University, and a Doctor of Science (DSc)  degree in engineering from the University of London.

In 1958, he joined the staff of Stanford as a lecturer in microwave engineering. A year later, Kirstein joined the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland, as an accelerator physicist. During five years with CERN, he also spent six months at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia.

In 1963, Kirstein left CERN to join the European office of the General Electric (GE) Corporate Research Center, where he was responsible for evaluating European scientific research. He left GE in 1967 to take a post with the University of London, but continued to evaluate research for GE on a consulting basis for another 25 years.

At the University of London Institute of Computer Science, Kirstein served first as a reader, and then as a professor of computer communications systems. In 1973, he transferred to the University College London (UCL) Department of Statistics and Computer Science. At UCL, he helped set up the computer science department, and served as its head from 1980 to 1994.

He continued to serve as director of research and a professor in that department for several years.

Kirstein’s research group at UCL became the first European ARPANET node with transatlantice IP connectivity in 1973. Early in the development of the Internet, he co-authored (with Vint Cerf) one of the most significant early technical papers on the internetworking concept, called “Issues in packet-network interconnection.” His research group at UCL adopted TCP/IP in 1982, a year ahead of ARPANET, and played a significant role in the very earliest experimental Internet work.

Beginning in 1983, Kirstein chaired the International Collaboration Board, an organization in which representatives of six NATO countries worked “to facilitate the formulation and conduct of collaborative research efforts among the members’ research establishments as a means to achieve interoperability of Command and Information Systems.” He also served on the Networking Panel of the NATO Science Committee (and served as its chair in 2001), and on advisory committees for the Australian Research Council, the Canadian Department of Communications (now Communication Canada), the German National Research Centre for information technology (GMD), and the Indian Education and Research Network (ERNET) Project. He also led the Silk Project, which developed ways to provide satellite-based Internet access to Newly Independent States in the Southern Caucasus and Central Asia.

He was awarded Commander of the Most Esxcellent Order of the British Empire CBE for his work on the Internet. He also was named a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, a Fellow of the IEEE, an Honorary Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. He has received the SIGCOMM Award in 1999, and the Postel Award for “outstanding contributions in service to the data communications community” in 2003, as well as various other award for his contributions to the development of the Internet internationally.

In 2012, Kirstein was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame by the Internet Society. In 2015, he was awarded the prestigious Marconi Prize for his “tireless advocacy and pioneering technical contributions to computer networking,” which “helped establish and expand the Internet in Europe and many other parts of the world.”

On the occasion of Kirstein being awarded the Marconi Prize, Sir Eric Ash, a Marconi Fellow and former rector of Imperial College, said Kirstein “has had an enormous influence on first, the acceptance and then the development of packet switching, and then the Internet in the U.K., Europe, and beyond. Creating the first European node of the ARPAnet at University College was a key step towards its wider acceptance. At this distance, it is hard to remember and envisage that this process was far from automatic! It faced passive and even active opposition. Peter Kirstein and his celebrated group at University College provided the catalysts that enabled what is arguably the key development of the 20th century to become so dominant in Europe.”

At that time, Robert Kahn said that as a UCL professor, Kirstein “has mentored engineers who have gone on to make many useful contributions to this space. He’s been a capable interlocutor between EU and U.S. defense department initiatives. He’s helped commercialize the technology, and he’s been one of the pioneers to push the boundaries of the communication paradigm much further. Quite simply, he is a giant in his field.”

Stephen Hailes, deputy head of the UCL Department of Computer Science, said of Kirstein, “Peter was very widely recognized as a pioneer of the Internet and has many honors to his name. He was one of the original inductees into the Internet Hall of Fame, and a recipient of both the SIGCOMM award and Marconi Prize; he was a distinguished fellow of the BCS and a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering; and he was awarded a CBE for his achievements. Much of this was undoubtedly down to an incredibly logical mind, coupled with a level of interest, vision and determination that saw him retire only late last year at the age of 86.”

Hailes added, “Peter was also deeply empathetic and sensitive: he was both gentleman and a gentle man, he was a source of encouragement and sage advice, he was persuasive, open-minded, fair, and never afraid to learn something new or to admit that he didn’t know.”

Lawrence M. Fisher is Senior Editor/News for ACM magazines.